UniteLive stories of the year - Equalities 'part of the fabric of our union'

UniteLive hears from Unite's first-ever National Black History Month awards gala winners

Reading time: 11 min

Every day over the Christmas period, UniteLive is running a different story from our top stories of 2023. Today, we look back at Unite celebrating its first-ever National Black History Month awards gala in October.

Unite celebrated its first-ever National Black History Month awards gala in Birmingham last week – and what a celebration it was!

The event, which drew more than a hundred of Unite’s Black and Asian Ethnic Minority (BAEM) reps and activists, honoured the many and often unsung contributions of Unite and its predecessor unions’ BAEM members.

More than 50 people won awards for the vital roles they played in fighting the scourge of racism in their workplaces, their communities and in the halls of power.

Notable award winners included the brave activists behind the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, whose actions overturned the racist hiring practices of the Bristol Omnibus Company. The Boycott is seen as a key catalyst that led to the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965.

In attendance was Unite general secretary Sharon Graham (pictured below), who gave a barnstorming speech about equalities now being at the heart of everything that Unite does under her leadership.

Sharon paid tribute to the guests, with a special nod to the Bristol Bus Boycott activists as well as Windrush generation members. She spoke of the horrors in Gaza, as well as of Unite’s commitment to securing justice for victims of the Windrush scandal, which she called an “absolute disgrace”.

She also acknowledged the role that Unite’s predecessor unions themselves often played in propagating racism, because, she said, “there is no point in burying our heads in the sand”, adding that Unite’s predecessor the T&G was “was wrong in initially supporting [the Bristol Omnibus Company’s] racist policy.

“And unfortunately, it was not alone,” she added. “So we must put this right today by saying that we were wrong and thank those Bristol Bus Boycott activists and say that we are proud of you.”

Sharon went on to highlight the steps Unite has taken under her leadership to “not only talk about equality but to do equality”.

These steps include scrapping the 50/50 rule governing the union’s legal cases on behalf of members, so that members can now more easily take discrimination cases to employment tribunals. Unite has now also established its first-ever development centre to support BAEM activists in becoming organisers, reps and union staff. Sharon moreover noted a motion agreed at this year’s rules conference, which establishes new political forums so that Unite’s BAEM National Committee can flag up its own political priorities, with the committee also being granted its own budget to “act on its own plans”.

UniteLive caught up with many of the evening’s award winners, including Guy Reid-Bailey and Joyce Morris-Wisdom, who played instrumental roles in the Bristol Bus Boycott.

Guy (pictured above) told UniteLive he was honoured to have received Unite’s award, one of many he has won in recent years, including the Pride of Britain Award and an OBE.

Commenting on Unite’s award, he said, “This is a surprise for me – I wasn’t expecting an award. I think it’s a brilliant idea and I’m very happy that this event was made possible.”

“Unite is a fantastic union – they give support when no one else does,” he added. “If they continue doing the work they’re doing, we’ll have a more equal society.”

Joyce (pictured below) was only 14 when she participated in the Bristol Bus Boycott by joining a march protesting the bus company’s racist hiring policy.  

“When the opportunity came to take part in the march, I explained to my mum, who agreed and gave me permission to be off school,” she recounted. “I was really nervous, but deep down inside I knew I had to do it. Being so young, I don’t think I fully realised the danger we were in – if the Teddy boys [a violent racist gang at the time] came out fighting, I’m not sure what we would have done.”

Joyce said she was “really honoured” to have won a Unite award, adding that “we changed the course of history”.

“The Bristol Bus Boycott was such an important moment in British history – it’s not just Black history or Caribbean history, it’s British history and should always be remembered,” she noted, adding that the Boycott should be taught as part of the national curriculum.

Joyce went on to say that the fight against racism is far from over.

“Back then it was overt racism, but now it’s more hidden,” she explained.

UniteLive also spoke to award winner and Unite member Monica Taylor (pictured below), who among many roles in the union over the years, has also served on Unite’s Executive Council.

Monica told of the struggles she faced as a young, widowed single mother. She went to night school to get an education while working at Lucas Automotive, a car and aerospace components manufacturing company.

“Because I was young and gobby back then, my colleagues wanted me to be a shop steward,” she said. “An election took place, then the union came back to me and said I didn’t get the position.”

Monica explained that the T&G, Unite’s predecessor union, didn’t want a black person to be a rep despite the fact that her colleagues overwhelmingly voted for her in the election.

“To be honest, it didn’t bother me – but guess what? The whole factory downed tools because they said they didn’t want to be represented by someone they didn’t vote for.”

Monica called it “a privilege” to be honoured at the awards gala.

“It’s a privilege because it’s not about me – it’s about all the others who have gone before us and haven’t been recognised,” she said. “This event should not be a mere tick-box exercise. We have to continue that legacy of fighting for equalities and fighting against racism in all its forms.”

Unite executive council members David Agbley and Susan Matthews (pictured above) also received awards at the event. They both told UniteLive how they were proud to have worked together to ensure the merger between two of Unite’s predecessor unions, the TGWU and Amicus, was a success.

They went on to say that they were thrilled that Unite has hosted its first-ever Black History Month awards gala.

“Another one of my proudest moments is being here today,” Susan said. “And we’re here today because of our general secretary Sharon Graham. She gets it. She understands that as BAEM members, equalities is not a separate issue from industrial matters. It’s interlinked – equalities is part of the industrial fabric of our union.”

David wholeheartedly agreed.

“It’s been said before that all union general secretaries have a blind spot for equalities,” David noted. “But I can say with certainty that Sharon has no such blind spot. She truly understands the importance of equalities in our union.”

UniteLive spoke to two attendees who came to accept awards on behalf of their fathers, who are sadly no longer with us.

Andrew Lynch (pictured below) came to the gala to accept an award for his father, Eric Scott Lynch, a lifelong union activist. Andrew told UniteLive how his father first got involved in the union movement.

“He was a building worker who worked at the Stanlow oil refinery. As you can imagine, health and safety on site was very poor back then. Everyone complained about it, but my father complained the loudest. And then his colleagues said, why don’t you become a shop steward? And so he did, and he never looked back.”

Andrew’s father was also an anti-racist activist who helped establish one of the first anti-racist training programmes in the country. He was a leading light of Black history in the city of Liverpool – he started tours for schoolchildren and others to educate people about Liverpool’s links to the slave trade. Eric Scott Lynch was moreover instrumental in the city of Liverpool’s official apology for its involvement in the slave trade.  

Andrew told UniteLive that his father had, over the years, received numerous awards for his activism, but that he thought most of all, Eric would be proudest of his Unite award.

“Even after his retirement, he remained a union member and was still very involved,” he explained. “To be recognised tonight by fellow union members would have made him so proud. It’s the recognition of a lifetime of activism, which is quite something.”

Vernon Samuels (pictured below) accepted an award on behalf of his father Norman Samuels, who served as the first ever Black bus driver for the Bristol Omnibus Company after the firm overturned its racist recruitment policy following the boycott.

Vernon was born on the very same day that Norman passed his driving test to become a bus driver, and his son couldn’t be prouder of what his father accomplished.

Norman, he said, was a true trailblazer – it would be over a year after the policy change before any other Black workers besides Norman put themselves forward for a job at Bristol Omnibus.

And while soon after he began working as a bus driver, the Race Relations Act 1965 was passed, racist attitudes didn’t change.

“It was a very hostile environment,” Vernon told UniteLive. “My father would pull up to a bus stop to let on someone who was running late for work. As soon as the person saw my father was black, they’d refuse to get on the bus. Many of his white colleagues didn’t want to work with him. There was a lot he had to endure, and he never made a fuss over it. I really admire his courage.”

Vernon himself has gone on to accomplish great things – he previously represented Great Britain in the men’s triple jump at the Olympic Games in 1988.

“It was my father’s courage and conviction that set the foundation for me and my family to have better options – I will forever be grateful for that,” he said. “He instilled in us when we were young to always be resilient. We ourselves as children also faced racism and we always felt he had our back, and that laid the groundwork for us to aspire and break barriers.”

Vernon explained why he thought events like Unite’s are so important.

“We need something to remind us that events [like the Bristol Bus Boycott] happened – that they aren’t fictional stories told to appease people’s conscience over what should be done,” he said. [Fighting the colour bar] was a necessary thing that needed to be mobilised around and defeated. We need to appreciate such events as much as they do Rosa Parks in America because they were a real turning point.

“The Boycott was also a unified action that brought together many different people and galvanized other actions,” Vernon added. “There’s an African saying that goes, ‘If you want to go fast, walk by yourself; but if you want to go far, you must walk together. That couldn’t be truer of what we’ve achieved collectively in the fight against racism.”

By Hajera Blagg

Photos by Mark Thomas